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It’s time for me to bang my anti-menstrual leave drum again.
A company called Culture Machine, a media firm based in Mumbai with 75 employees, just introduced First Day of Period, an initiative that gives women the first day of their monthly cycles off. The program is aimed at making the workplace more women-friendly.
The company has also launched a petition urging India’s ministry of HR development and the ministry of women and child development to establish a similar policy. “We, the women at Culture Machine, have the privilege, if we may call it that, to apply for a leave on the day when the discomfort is unmanageable, no questions asked,” the petition says. “Now, we want the rest of the women in India to have the same right.” At last count, the petition had garnered some 25,500 signatures.
Other countries have considered measures like Culture Machine’s. In March, Italy’s parliament weighed giving women an official menstrual leave. An argument I made against that proposal is also relevant in this case:
By all means, let’s eliminate the taboo surrounding menstruation in the workplace and in society at large. The stigma is a matter of life and death in some cultures, where menstruating women are still banished from communities, with sometimes fatal results. And access to paid sick days is a vital resource for workers who need time to remedy all kinds of ailments.
But asking employers to specifically accommodate women’s most mundane biological attribute—while helpful to those who suffer severe pain—seems overall like a retrograde request, especially considering how far women have come without it. Plus, these kinds of policies threaten to undermine women’s long-standing battle to discourage the notion that their natural cycle makes them weak or in any way less able.
That last point is—as it was in Italy—especially relevant in India, where the culture is so acutely patriarchal and rife with gender discrimination that a photographer’s project last month gained traction for honestly asking whether India cares more about cows or women. Researchers at the World Bank found that marriage, motherhood, and vexed gender relations partly explain why droves of women—20 million between 2004-2005 and 2011-2012—are leaving the workforce even as India’s economy grows at a steady pace. Sexual harassment against women is an epidemic in the real world and the virtual one.
Against that backdrop, menstrual leave could serve as an additional means for bias by discouraging businesses from hiring women; hire men who don’t need this time off instead. A mothers-only maternity leave benefit provides the same incentive, and it just so happens India passed such a measure earlier this year.
Certainly, a policy—or the mission behind it—shouldn’t be abandoned just because employers may abuse it. But in advocating for Culture Machine’s new leave initiative, Devleena S. Majumder, the company’s president of HR, identified what I see as another huge strike against a benefit that seeks accommodation for a trait generations of women have learned to live with. Period pain, she says, “is not an embarrassment. This is part of life.”